There’s no question that stories are essential to your organization’s success. Our brains are wired to be drawn to narrative. We are far more likely to remember and reshare an anecdote than a data point.
And yet, it’s hard to know what stories to tell. Nonprofits have been guilty of promoting narratives that perpetuate stereotypes, harming those they have a mission to serve, but what stories should we be telling?
Several months ago, I wrote a post about resources to help shift the narrative for equity in nonprofit communications. One of my favorite articles I shared there was Abesha Shiferaw’s 2018 post, “How to Tell Compelling Stories While Avoiding Savior Complex and Exploitation.” She discusses the nonprofit sector’s long history of exploiting the stories of the people they serve, especially those who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.
Fortunately, the nonprofit sector is becoming increasingly aware of the need to tell stories that are equitable, just, and anti-racist. So knowing that our organizations need to share stories—that they are the lifeblood of success in engaging people in our missions—here are four approaches for you to try.
1. The Founding Story
The founding story plays a critical role by establishing WHY the organization was created in the first place. Nonprofits are established in response to a problem. By sharing the story of how your organization came into being, you reinforce the impetus for why you exist today and help others connect with your mission.
A part of this founding story may also include owning past mistakes and reinventions that help define who you are today. Consider, for example, Alexis McGill Johnson’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times. As president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, McGill Johnson considers the white supremacist associations and opinions of the organization’s founder, Margaret Sanger. In doing so, she has the opportunity to reinforce why the organization was founded, the mistakes of its past, and how acknowledging those mistakes shapes the identity of the organization today.
It’s worth noting that there’s power in an organization acknowledging its missteps and failures. An organization that can admit its mistakes and work to correct them is more trustworthy than an organization that props up a bulwark against any criticism, especially if their organization’s values are centered around authenticity, trust, or transparency. In doing so, they begin to live up to their values, beginning the journey towards being more equitable and inclusive.
Hints for success:
- Focus on your founder(s)
- Establish the challenge they saw and why their solution was needed
- Reckon with difficult history
- Show how the past shapes who you are today
2. The Metaphor
I recently wrote at length about the power of the metaphor as a story. The metaphor story is a personal reflection or observation that acts as a symbol for a larger point you wish to make about your organization’s mission.
For example, I might share an observation about watching a tree grow in my backyard. Over the course of an hour I see very little change, but throughout the weeks, months, and years I see vast changes. The same is true for our organization’s work to fight climate change (for example). Each win may be barely noticeable, but over a longer period of time, the change is significant.
Hints for success:
- Share your experience of the metaphor in the first person
- Choose simple examples that can explain more complex ideas
- End by being clear about why your metaphor is a good symbol of your work
3. The Impact Story
The impact story is the most common story in the nonprofit sector. The story centers around a change that has occurred for an individual, a community, or in the world, and it helps illustrate how the organization is vital to that transformation.
Unfortunately, this story type tends to steal agency away from those who the organization exists to serve and can reinforce characterizations of dependency and dehumanization. Many nonprofits are not yet willing to let go of this story, even if they have a focus on equity and inclusion.
Sharing an impact story successfully begins by asking the question of whose story is it.
- Is it yours to tell? Do you have permission to do so, and can that permission be revoked at a later date?
- Should the person be financially compensated for allowing their story to be told?
- Should the person be involved in the story creation process?
- Could the story better be told in the first person?
Then center the story around the individual. Avoid stereotyping and use asset-based framing to highlight an individual’s strengths. Place responsibility for systemic forces on the institutions that promulgate them, and avoid blaming the victims of those systems.
Your constituents care about your brand’s story of impact because they want to understand how it can help them. You aren’t telling a story of impact because you want to get a pat on the back; you are sharing that story because you want others to be able to step into those shoes. Because of that, the hero of the story must solve their own challenges. Your organization, your donors, volunteers, and collaborators need to simply be helpful along the way.
Hints for success:
- Honor the individual
- Help others see themselves in the story
- Don’t make your organization the savior
- Show how the story reinforces the organization’s values
4. The Story of our Future
The story of the future imagines the world to come. It is a fictional invention based on the success of your mission.
A story of our future, might begin like this, “Imagine that it’s five years from today. A 7-year-old named Mila dreams of owning a business like her mother…”
The story of the future enables you to craft a narrative of success. In it, you show how your work will contribute to a better world. It allows you to show how your programs work, rather than just telling your listener about them.
Hints for success:
- Keep it simple
- Be clear that the story is invented
- Enable your reader to imagine their role in that success
There are many more stories your organization can share and other great resources on this topic.
What kinds of stories does your organization tell? Share more in the comments.